Athletes With Eating Disorders

Tips for Coaches, Parents, Friends and Teammates


“I am worried about my daughter. She exercises too much and eats too little. She says she's fine, but I think she’s becoming anorexic.”

“My Dad yells at me when I binge/purge: “You're wasting my money!!!” I am working hard to recover from my eating disorder, but he just doesn't get it. I don't even try to talk to him anymore.”


Eating disorders can be devastating to not only teams but also to families. Coaches and parents alike want their athletes to eat well and be healthy. The struggling athletes just want people to stop policing their eating and exercise. The athletes have difficulty talking about why they struggle with food; they instead communicate unhappiness by starving or stuffing their bodies. This distracts them from the pain of feeling “not good enough” and other hard feelings.


Unfortunately, too many athletes struggle with food issues. A survey of more than 400 female collegiate athletes indicated they typically believed their bodies were not good enough and wanted to lose five pounds.


  • 43 percent reported feeling terrified of becoming overweight
  • 22 percent were extremely preoccupied with food and weight
  • 31 percent had irregular or absent menstrual periods (a sign of inadequate fueling)
  • 34 percent had had a stress fracture or broken bone. (Weakened bones and stress fractures are common in athletes who experience loss of regular menstrual periods).
  • 18 percent of the women had/were at risk for having anorexia
  • 34 percent had/were at risk for having bulimia. (Beals, Int'l J Sports Nutr 2002)

While there are no easy answers to resolving disordered eating, Dr. David Herzog, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, has addressed common issues in his book Unlocking the Mysteries of Eating Disorders: A Life-Saving Guide to Your Child's Treatment and Recovery.


Here are some key points that might be helpful if you are the parent, coach or friend of an athlete with food issues. The goal is to help you understand what's really going on. If you yourself are the struggling athlete, you might want to highlight pertinent information in this article (or Dr. Herzog’s book), and then ask those who care about you to read the passages. This is one way to start a conversation.


• First of all, eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia) are a psychological diagnosis, not a nutritional diagnosis. Eating disorders have little to do with food. Food is just the symptom, not the problem.

• Eating disorders affect both girls and boys alike. For boys, society's rule “men don't cry” means they are not allowed to express sadness, fears or hurt. If they do, they can easily be ridiculed and rejected. So instead, they may starve or stuff themselves to numb difficult emotions. Some exhaust themselves with excessive exercise. Others take up body building, believing a muscular body means a perfect life. They need to be assured that having feelings in not a sign of weakness.


• Athletes with eating disorders tend to dislike themselves and their bodies. They feel inadequate, not “good enough.” Dieting seems a good way to fix what is wrong with them and allows them to be good at something—losing weight!


• If the athlete had at one time been pudgy and nagged by parents to slim down, he can now feel praiseworthy and acceptable. Remind him of the many good inner qualities he has that makes him special—kindness, caring, humor, leadership. The athlete needs to learn he is valued as a person, not for what he looks like.

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